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Including one that was man-made

It’s always a trip when The Legal Genealogist comes back to California.

That’s where I am today and tomorrow, to speak to the Ventura County Genealogical Society and the Jewish Genealogical Society of the Conejo Valley. It’s going to be two great days of genealogical education and I’m looking forward to it.

Right now, I’m in Camarillo in Ventura County.

sputnikBut my mind… well, it’s a bit further north… in Marin County. And, to be precise, in San Rafael in Marin County where I spent a few months when I was in the second grade.

I no longer remember exactly what the work assignment was that took my father all the way west from our home in New Jersey. I do remember, vividly, being pulled out of Mrs. Ponder’s second grade class, riding my first airplane across the country, and sticking my toes for the first time into the Pacific Ocean.

I remember that we rented a house high on a hill and I remember walking down about a kazillion steps on hillside sidewalks to get to the Short Elementary School… and I remember choosing to walk up the roads on the way back because it was easier than climbing all those steps.

I remember that it was winter much of the time when we were there, which means the rainy season. I remember keeping a change of clothes at school because, often as not, we’d arrive drenched to the skin.

I remember visits from my Uncle Bill, who was in the Navy. I remember he always brought us presents. I remember the huge dolls he brought us with articulating elbows and knees and wrists and ankles.

And, as much as or perhaps even more than anything else, I remember the wonder.

The wonder of discovering that the universe I lived in was bigger than the world I lived in.

Because the months when we lived there in San Rafael were in late 1957 and early 1958.

And because I remember being taken out into the backyard to watch what looked to me to be a star, moving across the sky.

NASA describes it this way:

History changed on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I. The world’s first artificial satellite was about the size of a beach ball (58 cm.or 22.8 inches in diameter), weighed only 83.6 kg. or 183.9 pounds, and took about 98 minutes to orbit the Earth on its elliptical path. That launch ushered in new political, military, technological, and scientific developments. While the Sputnik launch was a single event, it marked the start of the space age and the U.S.-U.S.S.R space race.


The story begins in 1952, when the International Council of Scientific Unions decided to establish July 1, 1957, to December 31, 1958, as the International Geophysical Year (IGY) because the scientists knew that the cycles of solar activity would be at a high point then. In October 1954, the council adopted a resolution calling for artificial satellites to be launched during the IGY to map the Earth’s surface.


In July 1955, the White House announced plans to launch an Earth-orbiting satellite for the IGY and solicited proposals from various Government research agencies to undertake development. In September 1955, the Naval Research Laboratory’s Vanguard proposal was chosen to represent the U.S. during the IGY.


The Sputnik launch changed everything. As a technical achievement, Sputnik caught the world’s attention and the American public off-guard. Its size was more impressive than Vanguard’s intended 3.5-pound payload. In addition, the public feared that the Soviets’ ability to launch satellites also translated into the capability to launch ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons from Europe to the U.S. Then the Soviets struck again; on November 3, Sputnik II was launched, carrying a much heavier payload, including a dog named Laika.


Immediately after the Sputnik I launch in October, the U.S. Defense Department responded to the political furor by approving funding for another U.S. satellite project. As a simultaneous alternative to Vanguard, Wernher von Braun and his Army Redstone Arsenal team began work on the Explorer project.


On January 31, 1958, the tide changed, when the United States successfully launched Explorer I. This satellite carried a small scientific payload that eventually discovered the magnetic radiation belts around the Earth, named after principal investigator James Van Allen. The Explorer program continued as a successful ongoing series of lightweight, scientifically useful spacecraft.1

A newfangled miracle of miracles — a satellite.

That moving star was made by people… and it was moving in space.

Now I’m not going to get into the question of whether what I saw was Sputnik itself or its booster rocket.2 Whatever it was, I can still remember standing there in the darkened yard in San Rafael looking up at that moving star.

And realizing that my world had gotten smaller… and my universe so much bigger.


Image: Replica of Sputnik I,

  1. Sputnik and The Dawn of the Space Age,” History, ( : accessed 14 Oct 2016).
  2. There are those who contend that the booster was easily seen and Sputnik impossible to see. Others say it was harder but possible. See the thread “Was Sputnik Visible Naked Eye?,” Cloudy Nights ( : accessed 14 Oct 2016).
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